Our Approach: Capacity Building

Why is it useful to build the capacity of local nonprofits in Africa, and how can we approach this work? PEACE Executive Director Peter Mosher discusses his findings from a literature review that grappled with our biggest, most important existential questions.

International Development

The traditional narrative surrounding the history of modern international development (1960s-present) can be, depending on who you ask, either one of abject failure or of fundamental success. On one side, critics talk of the failure of development “fads” over time: import substitution industrialization, the Washington Consensus, and conditionality-induced governance reform. They point to the ongoing poverty crisis in Africa, the failure of Western interventions to embed democracy and human rights around the world, and countless examples of projects that failed to live up to their lofty goals. On the other side, advocates can point to the billions who have been lifted out of poverty in past decades, of the “East Asian economic miracle” that transformed countries like China and Korea, and of the improvement of a variety of development metrics related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals (Ritchie et al., 2018).

In my opinion, the answer, as many are, is more complex than arguments on either extreme would suggest and, regardless, I believe it’s somewhat futile to adopt any sweeping characterization of “international development” anyway. Context matters, and the extremely broad “international development” space encompasses a large variety of countries and settings, so many that it may not really be useful equate or compare some interventions with others at all. Also, cynicism can be easy because international development is extremely challenging work, requiring solutions to often very complicated and nuanced problems. It’s easy for critics to cherry-pick failures because there are so, so many; not to say that these failures aren’t worth learning from.

Besides, the traditional arguments are becoming more dated these days, as the international development landscape looks very different from how it did one or two decades ago, when it revolved almost exclusively around siloed, top-down grantmaking from Western organizations. George Ingram (2019) at the Brookings Institute describes today’s “proliferation of actors” in international development thus: “A striking feature that is already disrupting the development landscape is the expansion in the number and diversity of development actors. Middle-income countries are increasingly taking control of their own development; China, the other BRIC countries, and Middle Eastern countries; growth in number of foundations and high-wealth philanthropists; and the entry of corporations into the development arena.” Ingram argues that this is a good thing, as it’s led to more open competition and a greater diversity of approaches. I agree; development is not a zero-sum game, and I think solving a problem as grand, complex and difficult as global poverty will require contributions from many actors tackling the problem in many different ways.

Local Ownership

Another of Ingram’s (2019) contemporary fads in International development is the growing recognition of approaches that grant greater project ownership to stakeholders in recipient countries. He reports that in a survey of 94 development leaders, “Local ownership of development is viewed as a significant, positive trend by the respondents.” A landmark event marking the growing relevance of local ownership was the 2005 Paris Declaration from the OECD, comprised of world’s industrialized nations, that established “five pillars” that would make member nations’ aid programs more effective. Included in the pillars were ownership, alignment, harmonization, and mutual accountability. The resolution continued by recommending that “developing countries set their own strategies for poverty reduction, improve their institutions and tackle corruption… (then) donor countries align behind these objectives and use local systems.”  In other words, the OECD explicitly stated that to make their aid more effective, they would seek departure from the traditional grantmaking model, one where power dynamics were clearly allocated according to financial might, to one where donors would attempt to give recipients equal seats at the table. Later in 2008, the OECD amended the Paris Declaration via the Accra Agenda for Action, which incorporated the input of over 80 developing countries and 3,000 civil society organizations, adding that donors should foster inclusive partnerships, develop recipient countries’ capacity, and continue striving to grant “ownership” to recipients (OECD). Today, most major aid organizations have followed in the OECD’s footsteps by adopting policies that formalize prioritization of project ownership.

Giving more ownership to local organizations brings several advantages. In a study for USAID, Cornman et al. (2005) highlight grassroots NGOs’ distinctive knowledge of local contexts, cultures and connections, which they argue gives them a unique capability to mobilize local communities. They also praise local organizations’ responsiveness, flexibility, commitment and cost-effectiveness. Jennifer Lentfer (2015), the former Executive Director of Thousand Currents agrees, asserting that local NGOs understand the deep roots of systemic injustice, and have needed staying power in recipient communities. Oelberger et al. (2020) add that working with local organizations addresses asymmetrical power relationships, and highlight that they are more often located in localities with greater need. They also argue that working with local NGOs can also allow donors to bypass corrupt and untrustworthy national governments.

The advantages of working with local organizations can also be discussed from a social justice perspective. As the Black Lives Matter movement has shined a spotlight on systemic racial disparity in the US, we can also note that Sub-Saharan Africa, where PEACE operates, has, and continues to be inexorably shaped by colonialism and its legacy. In his book The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly (2007), a renowned development economist, criticizes the West’s extensive legacy of failed top-down projects in the post-colonial era, drawing parallels between the modern aid community’s paternalism and that of African colonialism. The increased recognition of the local ownership approach latently follows the observations of Paulo Freire (2000), who advocated that to truly address social disparities, traditionally oppressed people must take on more active roles in creating solutions to social inequality.

Despite the many advantages of working with local organizations, it is important to be aware of their shortcomings as well. Cornman et al. (2005) highlight that local organizations often have limited administrative capacity, which is often particularly concerning for donors when it pertains financial management and transparency. Other common capacity shortcomings include human resource management, organizational planning, fundraising, and monitoring, evaluation, and reporting. The authors also include technical capacity as a common weakness, due to local nonprofits’ shortage of sufficient resources, experience and tools to address the vast needs in their communities.

Beyond these disadvantages, Oelberger et al. (2020) provide evidence that U.S. Foundations are less likely to fund local nonprofits when they are perceived as having greater “foreignness”, defined as being geographically, linguistically and culturally distant from funders. They find that foundations perceive that working with “foreign” NGOs means less transparency, less organizational fit, and an increased cost of obtaining information. These challenges, both real and perceived, may explain why, despite the advantages of working local organizations, there is consensus that they receive relatively little international aid. Lentfer (2005) writes that only 2% of global aid goes to local organizations, while Oelberger et al. (2020) assert that they only receive 11.7% of US Foundation grants in developing countries.

Capacity Building

This background provides both a clear picture of the advantages that local organizations bring, but also highlights some of their common deficiencies. Essentially, PEACE’s mission could viewed through this prism; local nonprofits’ strengths provide justification for promoting them as efficacious practitioners in the international field, while their identified weaknesses suggest specific ways that they could be helped to become more viable. PEACE can improve upon partners’ weaknesses via capacity building, defined by the National Council of Nonprofits as “whatever is needed to bring a nonprofit to the next level of operational, programmatic, financial, or organizational maturity” (National Council of Nonprofits). By building local nonprofits’ capacities and addressing their weaknesses, then, we can also progress towards a broader goal of contributing towards making development work in Africa more effective.

More specifically, based on Cornman et al.’s (2014) identified shortcomings, PEACE can assist its partners to bolster their skills in financial management and transparency, human resource management, organizational planning, fundraising, technical programmatic skills, and monitoring, evaluation and reporting. This work can be done through a variety of different techniques, including training and consulting, conducting and communicating research, connecting partners with key stakeholders, and even contributing directly to nonprofits’ administrative management. Meanwhile, to overcome the Oelberger et al.’s (2020) barrier of “foreignness”, PEACE can help local organizations to research, understand, and communicate with foreign donors and stakeholders, and assist them to write proposals.

It’s important to note, as well, that the literature suggests that capacity building is rarely straightforward, and instead often requires a lengthy, complex and nonlinear process. Lopes & Theisohn (2003) at the United Nations Development Programme stress that capacity building cannot be rushed, and must entail respect of the recipient’s value system, accountability to the recipient, and the ability to stay engaged under difficult circumstances. The authors continue that practitioners should build on recipients’ existing capacities rather than creating new ones, and integrate their inputs into the partner’s existing processes and systems. AbouAssi et al. (2017) echo that collaborations entailing local ownership should not just be “face value”, but entail a firm commitment to substantive collaboration. They assert that practitioners should establish shared goals with recipients, give them more decision making power, and acknowledge the need to be flexible and even occasionally suffer failure.

The Funding Landscape

Local nonprofits truly need this help, as they are often under resourced, and thus have limited capability to advance their missions. In my experience, when you ask local organizations what their biggest needs are, the overwhelming response is a demand for funding. However local organizations’ limited capacity makes it difficult for them to meet many funders’ burdensome demands. Despite increasing recognition of the local ownership approach, Oelberger et al. (2020) describe that many donors, worried about whether their funds will be used honestly and effectively, still demand a level of “conditionality” from recipient organizations by, for example, requiring local nonprofits to meet certain preconditions, and submit reports and performance assessments. Batti (2014) adds that local nonprofits must also grapple with donors’ shifting priorities, and their tendency to avoid partnership with organizations that do not already have a strong track record of success.

Against this backdrop, Batti continues, local nonprofits often lack the capacity, networking skills, and awareness of opportunities to identify donors and meet their cumbersome demands. After describing local organizations’ difficulties with obtaining funding, Batti states that “evidence in literature shows that organizations are struggling to grow consistently over a period of 10 years. Many local NGOs in Africa are smaller, privately-owned, group owned or family-owned, and are short-lived as they are unable to achieve long-term, consistent growth or improve performance.” NGO capacity often resembles a chicken and the egg problem: without capacity, local organizations have difficulty obtaining funding, but most donors are unwilling to fund low-capacity organizations in the first place (Batti, 2014; Oelberger et al., 2020).

Some donors do recognize this as an issue, and while many donors still demand conditionality, some go against the grain. One example is Justice Funders, a coalition of philanthropic organizations who embrace unconditional grant making to local organizations in developing countries (Justice Funders). There are also several ways, beyond applying for grants, that local nonprofits can obtain funding. Ingram (2019) and Batti (2019) describe that today, alternative sources of finance have become more common, including crowdfunding on the internet, social enterprise, local resource mobilization, and funding from private sector organizations.

PEACE should not, then, simply frame its work with partners as revolving around capacity building to become more competitive for grant funding. Rather, we should center our partnership strategies around building trust with partners, identifying their individual needs, and providing them with information about the diverse fundraising environment to help them determine which strategy is best for them. For example, if a partner seeks to target specific “traditionalist” funders, our partnership could focus on building administrative capacity, but if the partner would prefer to apply to a donor such as Justice Funders, or implement a crowdfunding campaign, different interventions might be more pertinent, such as focusing on project design and marketing.


Research reveals both local nonprofits’ strengths and weaknesses. Their strengths provide ample justification for them to receive more funding, while their weaknesses, such as administrative and technical capability, offer an opportunity to build their capacity. The literature further suggests the best strategies for working with nonprofits, mainly by treating them equitably, giving them voice, and being patient and persistent. An analysis of the funding landscape also reveals that local nonprofits can be helped to gain a better understanding of what fundraising opportunities are available, and that capacity building projects should depend on what type of funding strategies they’d like to pursue.


AbouAssi, K., Bowman, A. O., Jonhson, J. (November 6, 2017). Opinion: How to strengthen NGO-local government collaboration. DeveEx. Retrieved October 5 from https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-how-to-strengthen-ngo-local-government-collaboration-91425

Batti, R. C. (2014). Challenges Facing Local NGOs in Resource Mobilization. Humanities and Social Sciences, 2(3), 57-64. doi: 10.11648/j.hss.20140203.12

Cornman, Helen, Grimm, Curt D. & Rana Sujata. 2005. Engaging Local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the Response to HIV/AIDS. Anthropology Scholarship, 2.

Easterly, W. (2007). The white man’s burden: Why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy Of The Oppressed. New York : Continuum, 2000.

Ingram, George. (2019, May 30). The future of aid: How the global development business is evolving. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2019/05/30/the-future-of-aid-how-the-global-development-business-is-evolving/

Lentfer, J. (2015, November 13). Five reasons funding should go directly to local NGOs. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/nov/13/five-reasons-funding-should-go-directly-to-local-ngos

Justice Funders. Who we are. Justice Funders. Retrieved October 5, 2020 from http://justicefunders.org/about/

Lopes, C. & Theisohn, T. (2003). Ownership, Leadership and Transformation: Can We Do Better for Capacity Development? United Nations Development Programme.

National Council of Nonprofits. What is Capacity Building? National Council of Nonprofits. Retrieved October 5, 2020 from https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/tools-resources/what-capacity-building

Oelberger, C. R., Lecy, J., & Shachter, S. Y. (2020). Going the Extra Mile: The Liability of Foreignness in U.S. Foundation International Grantmaking to Local NGOs. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 49(4), 776–802. https://libkey.io/libraries/47/articles/368369273/full-text-file?utm_source=api_41

Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). The Paris Declaration & Accra Agenda for Action. https://www.oecd.org/dac/effectiveness/parisdeclarationandaccraagendaforaction.htm

Ritchie, Roser, Mispy, Ortiz-Ospina. (2018) Measuring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG-Tracker.org

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